sign that reads "please leave nothing behind but your footprints"

The Leave No Trace Principles: 7 Rules That Encourage Conservation

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Each year the number of people who choose opt outside to enjoy the beauty of the natural world is steadily increasing. With the steady increase in human population along with the number of people taking a step back from technology to unwind and be outside. There is an increase in the damage being done to the environment.

Not everyone is at fault and some people simply just don’t know they may be making a negative impact. The 7 Leave No Trace Principles are a set of guidelines designed to promote and encourage conservation of the natural world.

Having a general understanding of the Leave No Trace Principles and is a great way to show the natural world the respect that it deserves. This guarantees conservation and preservation of the wild world we are all fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy.

History of the Leave No Trace Principles

In the 1950’s America experienced an explosion in population that began around the end of World War 2 and continued to grow exponentially in the coming decades (source). With this explosion in population, there was a rediscovered interest in spending vacation time experiencing the outdoors. It was both an affordable holiday for adults and an educational experience for the kids.

With the explosion of population and a rediscovered interest in spending free time in the woods and industry stepped in.

There was an influx of companies promoting stoves, sleeping bags, and camping equipment that was marketed to the general public (source). The idea of camping and hiking was outside the lexicon of thinking before this time, and companies capitalized on this newfound market.

As more and more people began to use the outdoors, there was a noticeable reduction in trail quality and the untouched beauty of the outdoors. Everyone agreed, something had to be done to prevent the destruction of these beautiful pieces of earth. This is the beginning of the origin story of the Leave No Trace program.

Leave No Trace Gains Momentum

The movement and ideology of conservation began growing decade after decade. In the 1970s, both the Sierra Club and Boy Scouts of America began advocating and educating the public on the importance of conserving the ecosystem. 

By the 1980’s the Forest Service began printing and handing out educational pamphlets emphasizing the importance of conservation. There was also a pilot program formed between the Bureau of Land Management and the BLA to increase education efforts.

In 1990 the Forest Service formally began to introduce a national education program that taught the Leave No Trace principles. In 1994, Leave No Trace, Inc. became an official non-profit organization in Denver, Colorado designed to promote education and conservation of the environment.

Conservation efforts have continued ever since, with the continued growth of the human population it is more important than ever that we work together maintaining our planet. The wilderness we have is a finite resource and without proper care, it will disappear in a few generations.

What is the goal of Leave No Trace?

These guidelines for conservation and bioethics has been around informally for around 60 years. Leave No Trace was officially designated by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service in the 1960’s.

As the Forest Service saw an increase in the number of visitors, this coincided with an increase in trash left behind and environmental damage.

The forest service decided that they needed to do something about it and came up with a catchy little saying to promote conservation and awareness.

The ultimate goal of the Leave No Trace program is to educate people on the proper way to conserve the wilderness so that it will remain for generations to come.

The 7 Leave No Trace Guidelines

These guidelines are a roadmap to having a safe and successful excursion into the wild and are also an enjoyable and engaging way to promote conservation.

A table with a map, backpack, camera, and boots

1.   Plan Ahead and prepare

Poor preparation will leave you in an unfortunate and potentially dangerous situation. Planning ahead involves researching the area you plan to explore and understand the dangers and risks associated.

  • Understand the regulations
  • Prepare for extreme weather and emergencies
  • Avoid high time when possible
  • Maximum of 6 people in a group
  • Repackage food waste
  • Don’t mark the path with paint, rocks, or flags
  • Learn to use a map and compass

2.   Travel and camp on durable surfaces

When exploring the wilderness deep in the backcountry look for places to set up camp that will make the least impact on the environment. Ideally, you want to look for an established site when possible. If that’s not an option, look for an open patch of dirt, grass, gravel, or snow.

In well-traveled areas

  • Concentrate on using established campsites
  • Stay at least 200 feet from all water sources
  • Keep your group small
  • Hike in a single file line

In pristine areas

  • Avoid building campsites
  • Sleep in pairs at least 20 feet from each other
  • Avoid campfires
  • Make it seem like no one was there

Piece of paper garbage on a pile of leaves and old apples

3.   Dispose of waste properly

Education and encouragement on the proper disposal of human waste is a cornerstone of the Leave No Trace principles. Human waste and wastewater both have an immediate impact on surrounding water sources used by wildlife. It goes beyond just human waste to include bottles, plastics, trash, and grey water.

  • Pack it in, pack it out
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Bury human waste at least 6 inches deep
  • Stay 200 feet from all water sources

4.   Leave what you find behind

This one is common sense yet hard to resist. While it would be great to have a giant pinecone taken from a National Park, it’s against the law. Imagine if each person took a keepsake for their mantle at home, there wouldn’t be much left.

  • Leave rocks, pinecones, and seashells behind
  • Avoid bringing invasive or non-native species
  • Do not build permanent structures
  • Leave artifacts behind, look but do not touch

5.   Limit campfire impacts

Enjoying the look and sound of a campfire is a primal ritual that everyone can enjoy. Unfortunately, a large portion of forest fires are accidental and started by humans. It is imperative that we all understand how to properly build and more importantly contain a fire.

  • Use an existing fire ring when possible
  • Limit the size of fires to small branches and sticks
  • Burn everything to ash, completely extinguish, and scatter the ashes
  • Do not bring any firewood from home
  • Use a backpacking stove instead of making a fire

A large red deer standing behind tree saplings in a forest and looking at the camera

One of the best parts of being in nature is getting a chance to experience nature in its rawest form, it is both exhilarating and terrifying. There are a variety of predators to avoid and you need to always be aware of your surroundings. Bears, wolves, cougars, moose, and other wild animals deserve respect and should be avoided.

  • Observe wildlife from a distance
  • Never feed the animals
  • Secure all food rations
  • Avoid mating season
  • Control dogs at all times

7.   Be respectful of others

This one can be broken down into 4 simple words. Don’t be a dick. One of the universal truths in life is that if you’re nice to people they are nice back. If not, do your best to kill them with kindness.

  • Yield to others on the trail
  • Respect other visitors
  • Camp away from other people
  • Be quiet
  • Manage your pet’s behavior


There is a record number of people getting outdoors. Hiking, camping, climbing, trekking, kayaking, backpacking, and snowshoeing. With the increase in the number of people opting to spend their free time outdoors the responsibility to maintain the environment lies with all of us.

The National Park System that we have to enjoy in the USA is one of a kind. The responsibility to keep it pristine so that our children, and their children’s children is each and every one of ours.

For more information about everything Leave No Trace check out the Leave No Trace website. They have a ton of awesome and actionable information available at your fingertips.

As always, keep calm and camp on.

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